Black suprematic square (1915)

Black square and full circle

Malevich exhibition, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1, £13.10 (ends October 26)

The Tate Modern’s retrospective of Kazimir Malevich’s work is the first in 30 years and the only one ever to be exhibited in the UK. It is an intriguing and thorough exploration of the Russian revolutionary artist’s career, not only in terms of his aesthetic influences and ideas, but also in relation to his artistic responses to the turbulent period in which he worked.

In room one of the exhibition, as is common in retrospective shows, we see the developing artist: the young Malevich of 1906-11. Here he is shown experimenting with a variety of painting styles: the influences of Monet, Cézanne and Gauguin are explicit. Though there are a few small pieces that explore traditional Indian artwork, most of this early experimentation is influenced by the French movements of the late 19th century.

As we move on to room two, we see Malevich beginning to establish his own style, inspired by the influences of western contemporary art, but with a distinctly Russian feel - the shapes simplified and the colours bold. There is a hint of the beginnings of constructivism. The subject is often characteristically Russian in theme, epitomised by the peasant - for example, The scyther (1911-12). In this painting, the shapes in the body are pared down and geometric - whereas the planes of the face, though simplified, contain detail. The background shows no perspective: it is painted red so that it appears to jump forward, conflicting with the figure, yet also contains a traditional floral pattern. It is an odd mixture of western influence, Russian tradition and … something new. In this period Malevich is beginning to use religious icons - a theme that runs throughout much of the exhibition - but it is their aesthetic rather than sacred content that interests him.

Room three explores cubo-futurism. The dynamic sense of movement characterised by the Italian futurists, combined with the fractured perspectives of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, at first glance appear to be simply adopted wholesale by Malevich. On closer inspection the artist has transformed these styles into something more dynamic. He combines the futurists’ force of movement with a portrayal of the labouring figure, thus replacing the worship of the machine, and once more it is often the Russian peasant who is the subject - perhaps representing a rejection of the political ideology of futurism. This is, paradoxically, indicative of later Russian art movements, where the experimental film-makers of the 1920s, such as Dziga Vertov, in their attempt to proclaim the future of art and industry (soviet power plus electrification!), idolise the machine - and depict the human body in harmony with the machine, almost as a part of it.

What is most striking about this period of Malevich’s work is his willingness to disregard the boundaries between abstraction and representation. Throughout the cubist compositions there are representational depictions of objects; in the futurist-inspired pieces there are clearly recognisable figures.

We begin to see the artist’s ideological development in room four. Here we are presented with the collaborative work between Malevich and others from different disciplines of the Russian avant-garde of 1913. This collaboration of Russian futurists brought together painting, poetry, music and theatre in the common search for something completely new. Along with the poet, Aleksei Kruchenykh, and musician, Mikhail Matyushin, Kazimir Malevich produced a manifesto which called for language and rational thought to be ‘dissolved’. This marks the beginning of Malevich’s ‘suprematism’ - the portrayal of ‘spiritual purity’ through simple geometric shapes - although he had not yet coined the term nor fully worked out the concept at this stage in his career.

We are shown examples of Malevich’s set and costume designs for the opera, Victory over the sun. The plot essentially describes a scenario where humanity has captured the sun, creating a new era in which time ceases to exist. The viewer can peruse the sketches for sets and costumes, comprised of structural forms and bold colour. The opera itself is projected in the adjoining room, where sculptural figures move to its tuneless, jarring score.

Next, we see Malevich’s response to the outbreak of war. Interestingly, there is a canvas entitled Black quadrilateral (1914), on which is painted a black rectangle. The work has since been x-rayed to show that underneath the abstract there originally had been a sketch showing an image of a horse and the words, ‘war’, ‘Berlin’ and ‘peace’. But Malevich painted over the initial sketch before even a layer of dust had been allowed to settle on it.


Displayed in the next room is the famous Black square. The artist himself dated the work as 1913 (when he believed the initial concept for it began to take form), although it was most likely painted in 1915. The original is now so fragile that the versions on display at the Tate Modern were those painted in 1923 and 1929. Black square has become as significant a work, in terms of representing an ideological turning point in 20th century art, as Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 ready-made Fountain. The 1923 version of Black square is displayed alone. Surrounded by a white border, it represents both absence and presence. Zero hour. The work itself is oddly captivating and incredibly powerful on a purely aesthetic level.

Following on from this is the launch of suprematism. The Tate Modern has attempted to recreate Malevich’s 1915 Petrograd exhibition, 0.10. The works here epitomise the suprematist concept and aesthetic - geometric shapes and bold colours. Some of the work’s titles play on the antagonisms between representation and abstraction, such as Boy with a knapsack, where the two coloured squares are arranged in a composition that could be interpreted as a figure carrying a load on his back. Intriguingly the second Black square (1929 version) is displayed across the upper corner of the room. In Christian orthodox homes, this was the place designated for religious icons. The idea may be to imbue the initial suprematist work with the spiritual concept of ‘the beginning’ or perhaps it is just a provocative jibe at religion. (In another room there is a small painting of a cross with a white square occupying the space where Christ would traditionally be placed - this would suggest to me that the former interpretation was the intent).

Following the revolution of 1917, there was a change in Malevich’s suprematism and perhaps a hardening of his views. He writes off the artists of the past as mere “counterfeiters of nature”. Like many of the avant-garde at the time (in film, for example, the Cine-Eye manifesto), he believed the past had to be rejected - and replaced by something new and untainted.

In this year we see a move away from painting. Malevich questions the purpose of art within post-revolutionary society. He builds structural models with an architectural quality. The paintings that are produced begin to show a withdrawal from colour. True, the same coloured rectangles still feature on white backgrounds, but the colours are paler, dissolving from one edge into the white. In this way both colour and shape begin to fade. In the next series of paintings (1917-18), colour disappears completely, leaving ghostly canvases, such as White planes in dissolution (1917-18), where fading shapes merge into white.

By 1919, in the midst of the civil war, Malevich takes up a teaching post at the People’s School of Art in the small town of Vitebsk, founded by Marc Chagall. There he sets up the Unovis arts collective, which adopted the black square as its collective signature. After returning to Petrograd in 1922, Malevich continues to work for Unovis. The visual diagrams, or ‘teaching charts’, that the artist used as part of his pedagogical approach are displayed, but little explanation is offered to the viewer, except that he was attempting to show the history of modern art and the relationship between colour and sound.

By 1928, as readers will know, Stalin had consolidated power and had implemented the first of the five-year plans. The avant-garde were treated with distrust and socialist realism was emerging as the only official art form. Malevich returns to painting. Not in the suprematist style, yet not in the style of socialist realism either. The iconic Russian peasant returns as the subject. The figures are faceless bodies on collective farms and the style similar to that of his work 15 years previously. The depiction of suffering, starvation and despair is apparent.

In the final room, we see Malevich’s last works. The paintings are similar to those found in room one. There is certainly a full-scale return to representational painting, though ironically these works are signed with a black square - an enduring defence of suprematism.

Whether this return to initial forms is a conscious response to the Soviet Union under Stalin, in the same way that suprematism was an avant-garde response to the revolutionary period, I cannot say. Perhaps the maturing man, or his maturing artistic style, led to the re-adoption of representation. Or perhaps it was simply the need to stay alive. Whatever the reason, it is to Malevich’s credit that he did not capitulate to socialist realism.

The retrospective is well displayed, with an impressive array of work brought together from around the globe. The information on display sets the context well without imposing on the artwork . Walking round the exhibition, the viewer is taken on a journey through the artist’s life and career - as well as through Russian and Soviet politics from the 1905 avant-garde to the entrenched Stalinism of 1935.

In many ways the artwork comes full circle, but it clings on to aspects of the suprematist ideology. Yet in the final works there seems to be a sense of loss - both for the suprematist vision and for the possibility of a different society. As a retrospective, it is inspiring, dynamic, forceful and at times deeply moving.

Sarah McDonald